Read an Excerpt
`The Late Illustrious Prince'
`With Prince Albert we have buried our sovereign,' wrote Benjamin Disraeli. `This German Prince', he continued, `has governed England for twenty-one years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our kings has ever shown.' Lord Granville, one of Albert's most loyal allies among the Whig grandees, not a constituency that found a lot of common ground or sympathy with the Prince, wrote to his friend Lord Canning, Governor-General of India. `The most valuable life in this country has been taken, and the public are awakening to the value of the good and wise man who has gone. The loss to the country is great: to the Queen it is irreparable'.
The monument which is the subject of this book was compared by its creator to those other great architectural symbols of devotion to a royal spouse in Britain, the Eleanor Crosses. The Albert Memorial is, as much as the Taj Mahal, a symbol of human love and personal devotion, but the prominence of its position, and the support of large sections of the public, attest that it was not only a tribute from a widowed queen, but also from her people. It testifies to the reputation and achievements of Prince Albert in his relatively short life.
The Prince is often seen, unfairly, as stuffy, pompous, and rather a spoilsport, an impression enhanced by the overwhelming royal mourning which swamped the court after his death. Certainly he reformed the management of the Royal Household, and replaced his young wife's preference for latenight balls and London life with a greater emphasis on country pursuits at Windsor and Osborne. However, as a student, he had a reputation for witty caricature, and Lady Lyttelton, governess to the royal children, records many occasions on which his informal and entertaining comments on palace life were far from stuffy. In the heyday of the movement for Sunday observance led by Evangelicals like Lord Shaftesbury, he deplored what was known as a `Sunday face'. Moreover, he understood that the efforts to restrict Sunday openings of places like the British Museum and the Crystal Palace, and even the performance of military bands in the Royal Parks on the Sabbath, removed colour and recreation from the lives of the working classes for whom Sunday was the only day off. He also admitted the need for moderate drinking, instancing the failure of the `Ghillies Ball' at Balmoral when beer and not whisky was served. The great Whig families, at whose houses he and the Queen stayed, may have seen him as a pedantic, over-precise, provincial foreigner. But his feeling for the needs of ordinary people endeared him to them, and helps explain how widely he was commemorated after his death. Although London's Albert Memorial was the `National Memorial', it was paralleled by monuments and by institutions founded in his memory throughout the country.
The `Albertine' period, from 1840 to the early 1860s, was arguably a greater period of interest in the arts, of innovation in manufacturing, and of reform in government than the `Victorian' period that followed from the 1860s to the end of the century. It takes its intellectual flavour from its eponymous hero, whose carefully engineered upbringing created him, almost deliberately, for the role.
Albert Francis Charles Augustus Emmanuel, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was born in the Schloss Rosenau (1), just outside the Thuringian town of Coburg, on 26 August 1819. His father was Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1784-1844; 2), and his mother the Duchess Luise of Saxe-Gotha (1800-1831; 3), their marriage uniting the two Saxon duchies. Coburg was small, non-royal, and Protestant, looking to Leipzig for its political allegiances, but also influenced by its larger Catholic neighbour, Bavaria, raised to the status of a kingdom during the Napoleonic Wars. Prince Albert's grandparents, Duke Franz-Anton (1750-1806; 4) and his wife Duchess Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf (1757-1831), were a formidable couple who gave the little duchy an importance far greater than its size warranted. Duchess Augusta produced a large family, and one daughter was selected by Catherine the Great as a bride for one of her sons. This created a Russian connection which, in the dynastic politics of Europe, benefited all the handsome Coburg sons when it came to marriage. One of the boys, Ferdinand (1785-1851), married into the important Hungarian Kohari family, producing a son who secured the hand of Donna Anna Maria, the Queen of Portugal. Another Coburg son, Leopold (1790-1865), visited London in the train of the Allied sovereigns, the Tsar of Russia and the King of Prussia, in 1814, resulting in his courtship and marriage, two years later, to Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent and heir to the British crown.
In 1817 Princess Charlotte's death in childbirth left the royal succession unprovided for, and precipitated an indelicate rush to matrimony amongst her uncles, the sons of George III, most of whom had settled into late middle age with their mistresses. The Duke of Clarence (1765-1837) abandoned Mrs Jordan and a brood of Fitzclarences for Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, while the Duke of Kent (1767-1820) said farewell to twenty-seven years with Madame Saint Laurent, and entered into marriage with Leopold's sister, the widowed Duchess Victoire of Leiningen (1786-1861). In 1819 at Kensington Palace, the Duchess of Kent gave birth to the Princess Victoria, delivered by the same midwife who was to attend Albert's birth at the Rosenau three months later. The Coburg Connectionas the family's dynastic network was knownthus gave Albert both his place in European politics and his future wife. It also brought him a great deal of hostility from the British court, which saw the Coburgs as scheming and over-ambitious foreigners.
Albert's father, Duke Ernst, had served in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, had given his people a constitution, and reorganised the finances of the duchy. He was a connoisseur, who employed the great Karl Friedrich Schinkel to rebuild the Ehrenburg Palace in the centre of Coburg, and had a fine collection of Viennese and French furniture. However, his marriage to the Duchess Luisewedded when little more than a childwas unsuccessful, and Albert's parents separated when he was only five. It was a traumatic parting for the children, who never saw their mother again.
Albert and his elder brother Ernst (1818-1893)later Duke Ernst IIwere brought up together (5), becoming very close and remaining devoted to each other despite their different destinies and contrasting characters. A degree of stability was provided by Christoph Florschütz, a tutor who remained with them from 1823 till 1838. They had a good education and benefited from playing with other children, in marked contrast to the lonely childhood of the little Princess Victoria. Coburg had its own cultural tradition, a fine theatre, and a proud place in German Protestant history, since at a critical moment in the Reformation Martin Luther had found refuge in the Veste Coburg, the medieval castle high above the town. The boys had access to the countryside and rural sports, for which Albert developed a lifelong passionto the later amusement, and sometimes indignation, of the British press. He and his brother had their own small gardens, and subsequently contrived a naturmuseum for which they collected plants and specimens. In due course, Albert was sent to Belgium, to the court of his uncle Leopold, to tour in Italy under the guidance of Baron von Stockmar (1787-1863), and to study at the University of Bonn, more suitable for a Protestant prince than the University of Munich, which was closer but Catholic.
The boys' two grandmothers were very important in their lives, partly because they were the children of a broken home. The Duchess Augusta kept in close touch with her daughter, Victoire, and seems to have been the architect of Albert's marriage. `The little fellow is the pendant to the pretty cousin', she wrote to the Duchess of York in 1821, `very handsome, but too slight for a boy; lively, very funny, all good nature and full of mischief.' Augusta had two important coadjutors in Leopold, largely resident as a royal widower in England until he was elected King of the Belgians in 1831, and Stockmar, who had been part of his household and who subsequently moved into that of the young Queen Victoria. Leopold was particularly significant as he provided for his widowed sister and her children, badly off after the Duke of Kent's death in 1820 and refused financial support by George IV. Stockmar and Leopold were to advise the two young Coburg cousins, usually wisely, but often too well for English public opinion. The Clerk to the Privy Council, Charles Greville (1794-1865), who loved a good gossip, observed that being the `lucky Coburgs' (6) did not make the family popular. This prejudice was mitigated by the approval later given to Albert himself by a substantial part of the British public, but it made things difficult for him in his early married life.
Queen Victoria succeeded to great popular acclaim in 1837, but by 1839 her advisers were anxious to see her settled. She had already demonstrated her view of the royal prerogative through the Bedchamber affair, and despite Lord Melbourne's liking for the role, the management of a headstrong queen scarcely out of her teens was a considerable problem for her ministers. They were inclined to agree with Lord Grey (1764-1845): `The best thing that could be for the Princess would be to marry soon, and to marry a Prince of ability. He, as her bosom friend, would then be her most natural and safest private secretary.'